Queering recognition: Exploring ‘corrective rape’ and black lesbian sexuality in a local and transnational context, By Dr. Nadine Lake

The post-apartheid political and social landscape has provided researchers, scholars and readers with an opportunity to reconceptualise the LGBTQ+ category in public culture. My PhD titled ‘Corrective rape and black lesbian sexualities in contemporary South African cultural texts’ (2017) explored the category ‘black lesbian’ through mainstream and counter-discourses identified in South African print media (2003-2014), literature, and visual activism. ‘Corrective rape’, i.e. the rape of lesbian women by heterosexual men to ‘correct’ or ‘cure’ lesbian sexuality, emerged as a prominent concern in South Africa in 2003. The Independent on Saturday[1] newspaper reported on the staggering number of lesbians coming forward with accounts of assault, rape and homophobia-driven attacks. The director of the Durban Gay and Lesbian Community Centre, Nonhlanhla Mkhize said that it was clear from the outset that the reason black lesbians were being raped was because of their gender non-conforming behaviour.[2] It may be argued that the term ‘corrective rape’ gained representational recognition through newspaper pieces that consistently reported on the phenomenon in a specific way. Such news reports contributed to framing black lesbians as voiceless and unintelligible victims of violence, and it became clear that perpetrators were acting with impunity.

Stereotypes about African female and lesbian sexualities have come strongly to the fore in the South African print media. In a short YouTube video clip titled “South African women fall victim to ‘corrective rape’”, a young man interviewed about the phenomenon is revealed to share the sentiments of men perpetrating corrective rape crimes in his confident statement that, “my idea is to say let’s turn their minds to be normal because right now they’re being inhuman.”[3] This comment reveals much about the discursive construction of corrective rape and the specific frames within which the matter is reported. In other words, this discursive example reinforces the notion that black lesbian women’s minds and bodies are represented as being open to attack and heterosexuality is used to co-construct the definition of what it means to be human. Such persistent stereotypes contribute to representational myths about female African sexuality, for example, the notion that lesbian sexuality is unAfrican. Madhumita Lahiri queries the ‘collective global common sense knowledge’[4] that is so easily accessible on internet platforms like Youtube and Wikipedia and in her compelling article on practices of corrective rape and sati, she deconstructs the term ‘corrective rape.’ Lahiri reminds us that the term ‘corrective rape’ feeds into a patriarchal and punitive logic reserved for “those who challenge dominant ideas of gender and sexuality” (2011, p. 122).[5]

The myopic view on black lesbian sexuality in South Africa and further afield should encourage academics, researchers and critical readers to identify counter-narratives that challenge homophobic, racist and patriarchal representations of African female sexuality. One way of challenging these static representations of lesbian life is by identifying and documenting positive accounts and narratives of black lesbians in novels, autobiography, photography and other forms of literary activism. One such example of a queer counterpublic can be identified in the work of the South African artist and photographer, Zanele Muholi. Identifying as a black lesbian herself, Muholi is aware of the distorted representations surrounding black lesbian women, and in her photographic collection titled ‘Faces and Phases: 2006-2014’, Muholi documents black and white portraits, narratives, biographies and poems of black lesbian women and transgender men from Mafikeng, Durban, Gabarone, Johannesburg, Toronto, Harare, Paarl, London and Cape Town. The transnational focus in Muholi’s work is a reminder that heteronormative and homophobic frames of representation are not specific to black lesbian women in South Africa. Muholi recognises the importance of documenting positive accounts of black lesbian and transgender sexuality and through her visual activism she foregrounds the multifaceted nature of black lesbian life that is seldom represented in mainstream media. Muholi’s photography provides us with an entry point to queer recognition of black lesbian and transgender life. Deconstructing heteronormative representations of queer life becomes possible through the development and documentation of an unusual, affective archive. Ann Cvetkovich’s work on queer archives is particularly important in this regard. Cvetkovich asserts that “[d]ykes writing about sexuality and vulnerability have forged an emotional knowledge out of the need to situate intimate lives in relation to classism, racism, and other forms of oppression” (2003, p. 4)[6]. These forms of emotional knowledge do not necessarily fit our conventional notion of the historical archive but are equally, and in some cases even more significant, particularly in our attempt to queer recognition of lesbian life in an African and transnational context.

Dr. Nadine Lake is the director of the Gender Studies programme at the University of the Free State, South Africa. Her research interests include gender-based violence, lesbian sexualities, and queer archives. She completed the write-up of her PhD at Uppsala University, Sweden.

[1] Mufweba, Y., & Bhengu, X. (2003, November 8). Gay women hate crimes. Independent on Saturday.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The YouTube video “South African women fall victim to ‘corrective rape’” is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wefnH1SGDLM&t=213s

[4] Lahiri, M. (2011). Crimes and corrections: Bride burners, corrective rapists, and other black misogynists. Feminist Africa, 15, 121-134.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cvetkovich, A. (2003). An archive of feelings: Trauma, sexuality, and lesbian public cultures. Durham: Duke University Press.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.